Georgia dream of going one better in 2011
One of the abiding memories of Rugby World Cup 2007 in France is the haunted look on Irish players' faces as they trailed 10-7 with only 25 minutes to play against unfancied Georgia.
Girvan Dempsey's converted try ultimately spared Ireland some of their blushes as they ran out 14-10 winners, but Georgia's heroics scared the life out of a top six rugby nation and, according to their coach, they have only improved in the interim.
Since 2007, the Lelos are unbeaten against the likes of Romania, Russia and Portugal in the European Nations Cup, or 'Six Nations B', and last weekend Australian coach Tim Lane guided them to a third consecutive Rugby World Cup by guaranteeing a place inside the competition's top two.
"We're very pleased to have reached another World Cup. In 2007 the Georgians performed very well, they had that very close match against Ireland and also had their first win in the competition," Lane told Total Rugby Radio.
Two wins the dream
"Next year in New Zealand we'd like to target the one
win that they had in 2007 and then the big dream is to win another
match as well.
"If we qualify as number one from Europe we'll be in a pool with England, Argentina and Scotland plus another qualifier, so obviously we'd have to play very, very well to beat one of those three teams, but that would be the dream. Everything's possible."
By winning the last two European Nations Cup tournamemts, and putting themselves in pole position this season with only two matches to play, Lane's side has rubber-stamped its position as the 'best of the rest' in Europe, which in turn has helped the sport to grow domestically.
"Rugby has become a very popular sport here, I think it's overtaken soccer in the last five years.
"This year and next year the sport is starting up in schools as well so over the next few years hopefully the numbers will increase and create a little more depth throughout the country."
For the moment, though, development is happening mostly from the top down, many of the players plying their trades in France and also able to recall that night at the Chaban Delmas Stadium in Bordeaux, where they almost pulled off a massive upset.
"The players continually watch that game whenever they can.
It's an opportunity they had to beat one of the top six
countries in the world, and I think every time they play now
against a top side it's going to be a big event for them.
"It's never easy, but it's a great challenge and we've improved over the last three years so hopefully we'll take another step up next year.
"The 2007 team played a kicking and forward-dominated style of game and I think we've tried to introduce a more ball-in-hand style, which the players have enjoyed and also had some success with.
"We've obviously still got a way to go, and our forward pack is still our main strength, but we've developed some young backs and we're slowly getting there. Hopefully we can carry on improving and go out there in New Zealand and surprise some of the bigger teams that we play."
And the element of surprise could be key to Georgian success. In fact, one of Lane's biggest challenges could even play into the team's hands. The coach only has access to his top France-based players for five or six matches each year and faces a trying conundrum of whether to select them or rest them ahead of the World Cup.
If they do play for Georgia, the Lelos will doubtless benefit. If they don't, much of the analysis performed by their World Cup rivals will be fruitless, even misleading.
For now, though, the onus is very much on finishing the European Nations Cup on a high against the staunchest of rivals.
"Russia is always a big match and I think every time they play it's fiercely contested. Romania before that is going to be a tough one too because they are still fighting for a place in the World Cup play-offs, so two big games."
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